‘Ranger Doug’ Leen discusses quest to find, restore WPA posters at Berkeley Historical Society

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On Sunday, a full house filled the Berkeley Historical Society to hear an epic, cross-country tale of mystery and lost art. At the center of the intrigue was the decadeslong project of “Ranger Doug” Leen to recover and restore 14 original Works Progress Administration, or WPA, posters that depict some of the nation’s most prominent natural treasures, ranging from Fort Marion in Florida to Mount Rainier in Washington state.

The talk, aptly titled “Rangers of the Lost Art: WPA Posters of the National Parks,” was hosted by Leen himself, who has spent much of the last 40 years in pursuit of recovering and restoring the 14 posters. For about two hours, Leen — a former practicing dentist in the Alaskan backcountry — told the tale of his work to find 12 of the 14 original prints and to restore 11 of them to the public domain, which are now available to anyone interested in viewing or purchasing prints of their own.

Leen’s connection to these lost treasures began in a surreptitious manner — a matter of being in the right place at the right time. In 1971, while working as a seasonal ranger in the Grand Teton National Park, Leen came across an old poster print in a horse barn that would have been destroyed, burned or thrown away had he not salvaged the piece. The print in question was the “Jenny Lake” print, the WPA poster for Grand Teton depicting the crystalline lake in front of the foothills of the inimitable Cascade Canyon.

Inspired by the iconography and classic design, Leen sold copies of the print and eventually came across photos depicting the other prints in the series. This would be the impetus for his hunt to track down and restore the remaining 13 prints. Over the next several years, other prints would crop up across the country, often in the unlikeliest of places, among them a garage in Washington, a junk shop in Los Angeles and a sealed storage container at the University of Maryland. Leen described it as a “luck of the draw” that these works even survived.

As the posters gained notoriety and popularity, however, they would also increase in value, adding an element of competition to Leen’s project as he attempted to find the works before they disappeared even further into private collections.

Leen also discussed his own screen printing process involved in replicating the posters, as well as his work adding to the repertoire of the WPA works. Leen and his team have since produced more than 40 original posters in the style of the original prints for other national parks, including Haleakalā National Park in Hawaii, which Leen displayed during the presentation.

The project also has a local connection: The poster program actually originated in Berkeley itself, founded in 1938 by Dorr Yeager at the museum division of the Western Museum Laboratories. This is where WPA artists started creating the now iconic images and printing them through silk screening. Appropriately, the talk was introduced by museum manager John Aronovici, whose mother was among that initial group of Berkeley artists. The start of World War II led to the shutdown of the project and the beginning of the posters’ descent into obscurity. It is estimated that between 50 and 100 copies were made of each design, and each poster sold for about 12 cents.

On the whole, the talk made for an engaging discussion through decades of Leen’s work, made inspiring by his dedication to making these works — funded for the public during the New Deal, and depicting public parks — accessible to anyone who wishes to see them. It was a refreshing turn toward an egalitarian view on art and nature, made especially pertinent in the current political climate. The WPA posters and Leen’s work to restore them are testaments to the power and importance of the national parks, both in an aesthetic sense and as symbols of preserving the country’s natural works and spaces.

Contact Camryn Bell at [email protected].